Tarmac: Airport Surfaces

Airports · 6 min read · Jan 13, 2022
tarmac airport

Aviation is a field with a wide variety of terms that are used in ways that can be confusing for people who are not familiar with the aviation lingo. How can they not be confused when even people within the industry sometimes mix the terms up?

While we are going to talk about tarmac in this post, let us give an example of a confusing term and job title: flight attendants. It is widely known that the term flight attendant is one that has caused a lot of confusion and even controversy sometimes.

An aircraft standing on tarmac connected to a jetway.

Flight attendants are aviation professionals and part of the flight crew and there are both female and male professionals making a career in this role.

In the past, terms such as steward and stewardess were used, but they have been out of order since the 1970s. So, yes, aviation terminology has evolved and it can be confusing.

Luckily for you, here we are going to help you with some airport-related terminology, so you don’t get confused about it again.

What is “tarmac”?

Tarmac, ramp, apron, and flight line are often confused terms used in aviation, usually referring to various surfaces found in different sections of an airport.

Tarmac runway or tarmac also serves a lot of different purposes and contains a lot of necessary information for air traffic, air traffic control tower, and international flights as well as regional ones. Let’s begin by making this term clearer for you.

Multiple aircraft taxiing on a taxiway at an airport.

Aircraft park

The term tarmac is often used to describe airport parking areas but is actually a type of pavement.

In general, tarmac is oftentimes used to refer to different areas of an airport where aircraft roam, but the truth is that airports have no area or section officially called tarmac. The parts that are commonly referred to as tarmac include:

  • The runway, which is the way used for takeoff and landing.
  • The taxiway, which is usually formed by several ways to connect the runway and the apron is a movement area for planes. Airplanes taxi from the runway to the apron after landing or from the apron to the active runway for takeoff.
  • The apron, which is the area near gates where planes park to load or unload passengers, luggage, and cargo. The term ramp is sometimes used. However, the term ramp is considered to be outdated in the aviation world, and you should be using the term apron instead.

So, if there is no area or section called tarmac in any airport, what does this term stand for? Let us tell you now.

An airline airplane being towed down the taxiway and prepared for flight while other planes park behind the tow truck.

What is a tarmac in an airport?

Tarmac is a registered trademark of the British building firm Tarmac Limited, which uses tarmac for the road surface of parking areas at certain airport facilities. Tarmac is the short form of tarmacadam, a material that was patented in 1901 in the UK.

This material is formed by a mixture of crushed rocks and cement that is sealed using tar.

Do airports use tarmac?

While many think the road surface seen in airports where airplanes taxi is tarmac, the truth is that this material was deemed as very crude, and it does not comply with current standards such as heavy loads of today’s aircraft. In fact, tarmac has not been used for many years.

Any modern airport now uses concrete pavement, a type of surface that meets the modern aviation industry requirements.

Airfrance airline airplane parking on a tarmac at an airport on a clear warm summer day.

Do pilots call it a tarmac?

While there may be some cases when pilots unconsciously call any of the areas mentioned above “tarmac”, it is very rare. Keep in mind, there is no official definition for the term within aviation, so pilots and the rest of the professionals in the industry generally use appropriate terms instead.

Tarmac delay

However, there is one official use, and it is tarmac delay. It is said that the term was coined by a congressman who had no idea about aviation terminology, and this forced the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use the term in official documents.

Tarmac delay rule

The FAA defines it as a delay that occurs “when an airplane on the ground is either awaiting takeoff or has just landed and passengers do not have the opportunity to get off the plane”.

Usually, the tarmac delay applies to carries that are called “covered carrier”. This term is coined for airlines that have at least one airplane with 30+ seating capacity in, to, or from the United States. Some “covered carriers” include United Airlines, American Airlines or Delta.

While owning an extensive aircraft fleet for such airlines is a sign of stability, they often experience tarmac delay and Delta was fined in the past for flights delayed for over two hours on tarmac.

What to do in case of tarmac delay?

Be aware that if your next flight makes you sit and wait for hours it will be called a tarmac delay. And while it may sound like a terrible mistake, it is official and there is nothing we can do to change it now.

It can be very frustrating on international flights or connecting flights, but air traffic control tower usually have the perfect overview of the airport traffic and choosing to keep an airplane on tarmac delay is usually the best course of actions to keep the flow of incoming and departing flights smooth.

Small private jets parked on an apron at an airport on a clear day.

Air traffic controller: “On the ramp”

The main authorities, the FAA and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) are clear about the official terms they use. While they both refer to “aircraft parking lots” with the term “apron”, control tower professionals like air traffic controllers use the term “ramp”. This is particularly true for controllers in the United States. But why?

The main reason is that seaplanes were very popular in the United States, so any airport receiving this type of aircraft would literally have a ramp from water to the airport terminal to provide access for cabin crew and passengers, and to allow for maintenance activities.

Airplanes on the apron preparing for flight, parking, and taxiing on a clear summer day.

Aviation terms: tarmac

Now it should be clear that the real name for “aircraft parking lots” is the apron. Also, you can now understand why you may hear people saying ramp instead of an apron, but do not let them confuse you again, you know the planes are actually parked on the apron.

In addition, remember, that you may have heard “tarmac” often, it is not a common material in Europe and all over the world, and any airport you go to outside the UK is probably paved with concrete instead.

Difficult to understand for people outside the aviation world

Moreover, the media writing news stories will probably keep making mistakes with the word tarmac and other aviation terms.

For example, there are other parts of an airport with names that may be confusing for the general public. It is very likely that you have seen planes park on the apron and connected to the gate with a kind of tunnel that allows people to walk and board such planes.

That is the jet bridge, with trademarks such as Jetway and JetBridge sometimes confused as the official term.

A captain and a first officer sitting in an aircraft's cockpit, preparing for a flight at daytime.

Another good example from aviation terms that the media mistakes quite often is the use of the word pilot. There are different terms for different members of the cabin crew, and each of them has an important role.

We can mention a pilot, a captain, a co-pilot, a first officer, a second officer, a flight engineer, and a navigator to give you an idea, so whenever an action is being described, the right role should be used.

When the media speaks about pilots, they tend to forget these other terms exist, so we have to assume whether they refer to the captain given the context.

If we read in the news that “the pilot” safely landed the plane after an emergency, the most probable meaning of “the pilot” would be that both the captain and the first officer did it together.

Of course, we understand that there are a lot of terms within this industry, and learning them all can be challenging. Therefore, we always recommend taking it easy, studying with a course or a few of them to gain more knowledge and you will start getting a good grasp of the aviation lingo.

Lufthansa airline airplane standing at a jetway gate being serviced by airport staff on a late afternoon.

Final thoughts

So, there you have a quick summary of tarmac, tarmac delay, tarmac delay rule, also the term apron. You should also be able to understand the difficulty of aviation terms used in the industry and why they can be confusing for outsiders and the media.

Generally speaking it is enough to know that tarmac is a place where planes park, taxi to or from the runway and park at jetways to board or unboard passengers.

Moreoever, don’t forget that the term tarmac is not an official designation or a term. It is only an unofficial name used at airports throughout the US and Canada. Usually you will often hear the word apron. The only official term which includes the word tarmac is tarmac delay.

If you want to learn more about airplane, airport and aviation terminology in general, make sure to stay up to date with our blog and dive deeper into the world of aviation.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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